Terrestrial laser scanning is the current technique of choice for acquiring high resolution topographic data at the site scale (i.e. over tens to hundreds of metres), for accurate volume measurements or process modelling. However, in regions of complex topography with multiple local horizons, restricted lines of sight significantly hinder use of such tripod-based instruments by requiring multiple setups to achieve full coverage of the area. We demonstrate a novel hand-held mobile laser scanning technique that offers particular promise for site-scale topographic surveys of complex environments. To carry out a survey, the hand-held mobile laser scanner (HMLS) is walked across a site, mapping around the surveyor continuously en route. We assess the accuracy of HMLS data by comparing survey results from an eroding coastal cliff site with those acquired by a state-of-the-art terrestrial laser scanner (TLS) and also with the results of a photo-survey, processed by structure from motion and multi-view stereo (SfM-MVS) algorithms. HMLS data are shown to have a root mean square (RMS) difference to the benchmark TLS data of 20 mm, not dissimilar to that of the SfM-MVS survey (18 mm). The efficiency of the HMLS system in complex terrain is demonstrated by acquiring topographic data covering ~780 m2 of salt-marsh gullies, with a mean point spacing of 4.4 cm, in approximately six minutes. We estimate that HMLS surveying of gullies is approximately 40 times faster than using a TLS and six times faster than using SfM-MVS. © 2013 The Authors. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.